Search the phrase ‘low carb diet muscle loss’ on Google or Twitter and you’ll almost 20,000,000 results. Many of them claim that eating this way will cause you to lose your muscle, health and strength.
It’s enough to make you believe that after a few weeks eating low carb you’ll turn into a scarecrow and be too weak to get yourself out of bed.
The reality is that this isn’t likely to happen. I know dozens of people who eat low carb or keto – many for years at a time – and they’ve yet to resemble a scarecrow. In fact, it doesn’t have to happen at all. You can actually build muscle on a low carbohydrate diet, while you’re losing body fat.
I’ve done it myself, losing 70 lbs of fat and building 10-12 pounds of muscle.
Eating this way can actually prevent the muscle loss that does occur when you eat a high carb, low fat, low calorie diet. Especially when you do things properly. This is mainly because once your body is using fat for its primary source of energy it spares your muscle from being broken down and used as energy. Even when you’re eating less.
What You’ll Learn From This Article
After reading, you’ll know how to eat low carb and keto for fat loss without losing muscle. I give you all that you need to know including: what to eat, how to exercise, and which nutritional supplements can help you achieve better than normal results.
Now that you know the good news, let’s get started and on the path to being lean, strong, and healthy.
How Prevent Muscle Loss When Eating Low Carb
Eat Enough Protein Every Day
To maintain, and especially to build muscle, you need to make sure you’re eating enough protein on a daily basis. Research finds that we need to eat about 1 gram of protein per pound of your goal body weight every day. Numerous studies find that this amount is safe and very effective.
If you are working out very intensely, for example 5 Crossfit or other intense workouts a week, you may need to eat a little more. Otherwise 1 gram per pound of your goal weight a day is enough.
Protein rich foods to include in your diet are: meat (beef, chicken, fish, pork), eggs, and if you can tolerate it, dairy (milk and cheese).
Drinking 1-2 whey protein shakes a day is an awesome way to meet your daily needs. They’ll give you about 25 grams of the highest quality protein available with only a few grams of carbohydrates and very little fat. This is my favorite way to make sure I get enough protein every day. I typically drink a shake after eating dinner. It’s also a great way to curb your sweet tooth.
You don’t have to worry about weighing every piece of meat you eat to determine its protein content. Just use your hand as a guide. A palm-sized serving of meat is generally equal to 28 grams of protein.
You can also learn how much protein is in the food you’re eating by Googling the name of the food and protein.
Here’s a list of the protein content of a few high quality sources you can use as a basic guide.
- 4 ounces red meat – 28 grams
- 4 ounces of fish – 24 grams
- 1 large egg – 6 grams
- 4 ounces of chicken – 28 grams
- 1 scoop whey protein powder – 24 grams
Another benefit of eating a little more protein at each meal is that it keeps you full longer. This makes you less likely to get hungry or have excessive cravings.
What About Plant Protein?
It’s okay if that’s your thing. It just doesn’t have all of the quality amino acids as meat and dairy based proteins. You’ll need to be careful to watch your carbohydrate intake too as many plant based proteins have a lot of carbohydrates.
Protein powders, especially those made from pea and hemp make getting enough easy without going overboard on carbs.
Do Some Type Of Strength Training
Whether it’s push ups and bodyweight squats, CrossFit, bodybuilding style workouts, or simply push ups, pull ups, and body weight squats you have to do resistance based workouts.
You want to lift weights a minimum of 2 times a week. This is just enough to keep the muscle you already have. If your goal is to build more and get stronger – and it should be – you’ll need to train more often.
Another reason to lift weights often is that it will help you lose belly (visceral) fat faster. Even better than the aerobic exercise (cycling, jogging, walking, etc.). This is super important.
Excess belly fat wraps itself around and gets into your digestive system, stomach, liver, and other organs. When this happens they can’t function properly. It also increases your risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, and other very dangerous medical conditions.
General Guidelines For Strength Training
- Train major muscle groups: legs, chest, back, shoulders.
- This is best done with compound exercises like squats, push ups, chin ups, rows, and shoulder presses.
- Stick to 3-5 sets and 5-8 reps per set.
- At first rest 1-2 days between workouts.
- Don’t worry about going to failure, especially at first. Use a weight that you can lift for 5-8 reps with good technique that’s hard but not a 100% effort.
If you’d like to see some of the workouts I do, check out this page.
You can also do calisthenics like push ups, squats, dips, and pull ups. Use the same guidelines as if you are using barbells, dumbbells, or machines.
Make Sure To Get Your Electrolytes
Low carb diet researcher and medical doctor Stephen Phinney (link) has a great, easy to follow recommendation that’s helpful for preventing muscle loss on a low carb diet. Especially during the first few weeks when your body is adapting to burning fat for its fuel instead of carbs.
What he recommends is making sure to get enough electrolytes in your diet. Potassium and sodium are the most important.
You can do this very easily. First, add a little extra salt to your food. Then, make sure you eat potassium rich foods. This is easy since many are low carb. Some include: avocados, broccoli, salmon, sardines, and spinach. Unsweetened coconut water is good too.
Another way to get a little extra sodium and potassium is to use Morton Lite Salt. It contains both electrolytes in one serving. Use it like you would salt to salt your food.
Getting adequate electrolytes will also help you avoid the dreaded ‘keto flu’. This often occurs during the initial stages of a low carb or keto diet. It’s symptoms include fatigue, nausea, and feeling plain crummy.
Don’t overdo it with the potassium. This can cause an irregular heart beat. As with everything else diet, supplement, and exercise related always check with your doctor first.
Supplements And Other Helpful Tips
- Take creatine monohydrate. This supplement isn’t called nature’s muscle builder for nothing! Studies find that after 28 days you’re likely to build at least 3-5 pounds of new muscle.
- Eat extra protein. Go for an extra 50 grams a day to start. This is equal to 6-8 ounces of meat or 2 scoops of high quality whey protein. I find shakes to be the best. The are easy to drink, even if you are a little full. You don’t feel overly stuffed afterwards, either which often happens when eating extra meat.
- Optimize your recovery. This means getting enough sleep, staying hydrated, and doing what you can to best handle stress.
You now know everything you need to do to lose fat instead of muscle when you’re eating low carb. Give these tips a try and let us know how they work for you. If you have any other suggestions, let me know. I’m always looking to learn more and share new information when it comes to low carb eating to stay lean, strong, and healthy.
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Manninen. Very-low-carbohydrate diets and preservation of muscle mass. Nutr Metab (Lond). 2006;3:9. Published 2006 Jan 31.
Perissiou M, Borkoles E, Kobayashi K, Polman R. The Effect of an 8 Week Prescribed Exercise and Low-Carbohydrate Diet on Cardiorespiratory Fitness, Body Composition and Cardiometabolic Risk Factors in Obese Individuals: A Randomised Controlled Trial. Nutrients. 2020;12(2):482.
Vargas S, Romance R, Petro JL, et al. Efficacy of ketogenic diet on body composition during resistance training in trained men: a randomized controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2018;15(1):31.